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A tongue-in-cheek article by A. Barton Hinkle claims that “Now We Know Why Children Are Getting Dumber.” In essence, it’s because the volume of knowledge keeps expanding. There’s always more literature out there to be pored over, there’s always more scientific innovation and discovery to help explain the natural world, and there’s always more history being made. Hinkle writes:

Same for history: They just keep making more of it. For the WWII generation, the Great Depression wasn’t history, it was current events. They didn’t have to learn about the civil-rights movement or Vietnam or Watergate or Reaganomics because none of that had happened yet. Today’s pupils not only have to learn all that more recent history, they will soon be learning the history of 9/11, the Iraq War and the Obama administration. And the cohort after that? Good luck to them, because they’re going to need it.

Reading the article brought me back to a recent discussion with some coworkers. They said that high school math stays pretty much the same, although some of the higher-ups keep trying to change how it’s taught. They said that high school science remains relatively stable, but does make adjustments to curriculum when discovery warrants it. But history, they said, keeps growing at a relatively constant pace of roughly one year per year. More if you consider that with an expanding population, there’re more people out there to make history.

I pointed out that happily, history teachers have a way around this– at least in high school survey courses. The trick is that our courses don’t cover the whole shebang. They aren’t supposed to. As time goes on, we thin out the beginning, shift around the middle, and tack a little bit more onto the end. The coverage of history in survey classes, I said, looks like a chi-square distribution. To wit (click to embiggen):

A history text can’t cover anything after its publication (until we start teaching via Kindles and iPads, and then there’ll be semantic debates over what truly constitutes publication). Recent history, say the last decade or so, gets pretty thin coverage because it’s too close to being “current events.” Then the coverage gets heavier and heavier, until you get to a few hundred years back, and it starts to thin out again. In later editions, you add another chapter at the end and merge chapters at the beginning– those bindings can only hold so much paper.

I own my grandfather’s high school history textbook, which ends with discussion about whether America would enter “The Great War.” I’ll flip through it on occasion for the older perspective on certain events, and to compare it to the textbook I use in my classes. Grampa’s book is much heavier on the period from 1650 to 1750, going into much greater detail about the wars between France and Britain and how they played out in North America. It also spends over 100 pages on the Civil War, which had ended barely 50 years before publication.

Current textbooks understandably trim that 1650-1750 period down to maybe two chapters and spend maybe 40-50 pages on the Civil War, because you’ve got to add in 100 years of new stuff– the Roaring 20s, the Depression, WWII, the Cold War, Elvis, etc. The last few pages of my 2002 edition of The American Pageant discuss the internet, David Mamet, 9/11, and the PATRIOT Act. The War in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the Red Sox, Obama and I are going to show up in the newer editions, and the 1600s will grow ever-thinner. But the shape of the curve will remain the same.

So there goes that excuse. Get to work.

13 comments

  1. I think we need to discuss the Civil War more than we do now. I would actually be for a 2 yr model of teaching US History in order to get everything. important, and if the kids complain tell them tough [expletive deleted], and if the parents do, tell them they can gladly teach and babysit their own kids to their own liking, otherwise stop bitching.

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  2. I think you should develop a course that examines the history of economic policy in the United States. Maybe something AP Micro and Macro kids can take as an elective. Too many kids have a twisted perception of how the government should behave. They think paying one guy to dig ditches and another to fill them in is wonderful. After all, it spreads the wealth around. And why not break a window? It helps the glass man. I could go on and on, but lets just say, by the time they get to college, it’s too late. You’re the last line of defense. Of course, you could always just run for president too and reform the system.

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  3. @Noutheteo: College isn’t too late to learn econ. I didn’t learn real econ until I went to college, and it was nothing like what I’d been taught in high school (which was a simplistic freshman survey of the business world with a dash of supply and demand).

    One thing I learned from teaching econ is that it can provide the tools of economic analysis, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to changes in people’s policy preferences. Policy preferences tend to be strongly linked to your personal ethics or beliefs, and we tend to look for ways to reinforce our beliefs instead of challenging or changing them after careful thought.

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  4. @WDE: I love the idea of a two-year US history course. IB history attempts something like this; at my school the IBers take APUSH as juniors and CHIB as seniors. These two courses overlap significantly (which is good for the purpose of getting them to pass both exams), but I’d like to see a two-year course for the non-IBers, too.

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  5. True, but if I hadn’t had econ in high school, I never would have pursued it in college. And at least in one case, the “simplistic freshman survey of the business world with a dash of supply and demand” at least got me to reevaluate my personal beliefs. I realized that there’s “helping people” and then there’s HELPING PEOPLE. I learned that things are not always as they seem and that there are hidden costs. From there, I’ve learned very little in college, and instead have learned more from personal reading and growth…but I enjoy debating most of the teachers 🙂 The important thing is, you helped develop a good foundation. At least in my opinion. I’m sure some of my teachers would say you ruined me for life.

    Anyways, that’s my way of saying thank you for being a great influential teacher.

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  6. @noutheteo

    High school must meet particular curriculum standards. Often there isn’t much time for in depth analysis of things such as economic policy. I began college at the same age that I graduated high school, I don’t think that a few months meant my brain was now hopeless at learning new information. In fact, I find that I learn a lot more through my university classes than I ever did in the vast majority of my primary schooling.

    @VDV/WDE:

    That sounds absolutely atrocious. I’m a history nerd, but US history is some of the least interesting to me. Not to mention, it’s noteably shorter than most. Two years spent on a single state in high school sounds like such a waste. There are so many other things to learn.

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  7. I’ll indulge my sense of American exceptionalism and take the time to say American History, no matter how short relatively speaking, merits two years because we’re the best. I’ll be happy to cite my sources if requested.

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  8. And while there is less of US History, our History is much more important to us than other history. The only person who’d want less US History are the Democrats so the people don’t notice how much they’ve [past tense of expletive deleted] America over in the past 80 years.
    BTW: I think a good break between parts one and two should be at the end of the Wilson Administration.

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  9. I’m all for more consistency in the curriculum throughout the system. AP Micro was nothing like Intermediate Micro and Intermediate Micro looks nothing like Graduate Micro I (although Intermediate does look similar to Advanced … perhaps I shouldn’t skip to Grad that quickly); the only thing that was consistent was the basic economic intuition.

    And ahh, college history classes, where a professor can spend an entire semester going over a 25 year period in great detail. What joy.
    But I think we should just delete the Civil War from all history courses, it is the most aggravating topic ever fought over the most idiotic idea ever. To fill in the pages, we should put more 20th century & 17th century American history in.

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  10. Yes, WDE, it’s those damn democrats. Anyone who would want to learn about the trials of humanity through the political, economic, and social triumphs and failures of the very civilizations we God favored Americans came from thousands of years before America ever came into existence are such party abiding imbeciles. What [plural noun form of expletive]. Your genius and insight inspire me with each and every post. Thank you. Thank you so much. Really. Thank you.

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  11. @VDV: Perhaps. But how could you not be distracted by his spectacular intellect? I mean. You often had to stop class to wipe the tears of admiration of him from your eyes. We all fall victim to genius.

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